I often ask about my friends’ family recipes. Sometimes they promise to provide one, or tell a story about long lost, treasured recipes written on cards. But today was special. My friend Anton came with his son Greg, his grandmother’s recipe for Syrian Baked Lamb Kibbeh, and stories galore.
Before we began the kibbeh, Anton opened the cookbook that he uses as a guide, a small spiral-bound volume entitled, Cookin’ Good with Sitta: Traditional Mid-Eastern Recipes. The Our Lady of Perpetual Help Society of St. Ann’s Melkite Catholic Church in West Paterson, NJ created the book. With prayers for before and after meals on the inside cover, it’s a classic old fashioned cookbook by a ladies guild. As Anton leafed through the book, it sparked memories of his family’s food traditions.
Anton is a wonderful storyteller. As we prepared the Syrian Baked Lamb Kibbeh, titled Kibbeh Bisaneeyeh in the cookbook, he talked about his mother and grandmother. His son Greg may have heard the stories before, but he listened attentively too.
I was mesmerized by Anton’s stories, particularly those of his Armenian Orthodox Christian grandmother, from Aleppo, Syria. A refugee from the Armenian genocide, she never let anyone speak ill of Muslims in her presence because she said that they had taken in the refugee Christians and treated them well. I wish she were with us today to spread her message of religious tolerance.
Although Anton said he doesn’t speak Arabic (when I asked), he pronounced Arabic names of dishes with ease and used the guttural sounds I am used to from Hebrew. Anton calls his ancestry Syrian, but he strongly identifies in particular with Aleppo, the city his family is from and a crossroads of cultures and foods of the Middle East and elsewhere.
He also explained that the cookbook uses colloquial, rather than proper names, for some dishes. I found out what he meant when I went looking online for the Arabic name used in the book for the dish, Kibbeh Bissaneeyeh. (The translation provided is “Lamb and Wheat Baked with Stuffing.”) That name retrieves almost no results in Google. But Kibbeh Bil Sanieh does. Thank goodness for Anton’s guidance.
If you don’t know what baked kibbeh is, think of it as Middle Eastern meatloaf. That’s the way Anton described it as he put the casserole together and I’d agree. Comfort food even if you didn’t grow up eating it.
Three Things to Know About Syrian Baked Lamb Kibbeh
- Lamb is key. Some recipes say you can make this with ground beef. Don’t. It’s just not the same. The taste of lamb is part of what makes this dish so special.
- If you like to work with play dough, you’ll love making Syrian Baked Kibbeh. You have to use your hands to make the outside layers, called Kibbeh Nayeh or Naked/Raw Kibbeh. First, you knead the meat and bulgur mixture like dough, then you pat it out into layers below and above cooked lamb. If you hate the thought of touching raw meat, don’t attempt this recipe.
- Kibbeh is aromatic, but not spicy. The only spice in this version (besides salt) is ground allspice. Common in Middle Eastern, Caribbean and other cuisines, allspice is often used in spicy foods such as jerk seasoning, curries, and even mole sauce. However, on its own, despite the fact that it is sometimes called pepper, allspice is not spicy. Wikipedia refers to allspice as Jamaica pepper or pepper and Anton said that in his family, it is referred to as Aleppo pepper. (My fragrant-but-not-spicy Easy Slow Cooker Jamaican Baked Beans uses the whole version, allspice berries.) I’ve given a range of how much to use because how aromatic the kibbeh should be is a matter of personal taste.
Syrian Baked Lamb Kibbeh or Kibbeh Bil Sanieh
A fragrant meat "pie" made of a lamb and bulgur top and bottom encasing a layer of lamb,onion, pinenuts, and allspice. Comfort food from the Middle East.
Kibbeh Nayeh or Naked/Raw Kibbeh
- 1 cup fine (#1) bulgur Note that if you use medium or coarse bulgur, the mixture will be chewier.
- 8 ounces tomato sauce (Small can)
- 10-12 ounces room temperature water
- 2 pounds lean ground lamb
- 2 medium onions, grated Use a box grater or a food processor
- 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
- 1 pound lean ground lamb
- 1 medium-large onion, roughly chopped
- 1/4 cup pine nuts
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- 2-3 teaspoons ground allspice
- 1/2 - 1 tablespoon butter
Kibbeh Nayeh or Naked/Raw Kibbeh
In a large bowl, soak the bulgur in the tomato sauce and water for about 20 minutes until the liquid is absorbed. If a bit of water remains, drain it out.
After the bulgur is done soaking, add the lamb, grated onions, and salt to the bowl. Knead the mixture with your hands for several minutes as if it were bread, until all of the ingredients are thoroughly combined. Anton told me that kneading is essential because it breaks down the protein in the meat. He said he learned that from Paula Wolfert, a master of Middle Eastern cooking as well as a prolific cookbook author on Middle Eastern food. Refrigerate the mixture while you make the stuffing. Cool Kibbeh Nayeh is easier to handle and work into thin layers for the top and bottom of this dish.
In a non-stick pan, or one with just the slightest bit of oil to keep the meat from sticking, sauté the ground lamb on low-medium heat, breaking it up so that it cooks in tiny pieces. (This step reminds me of making ground beef for chili.) After about 8-10 minutes, when the meat is completely cooked/browned, add the chopped onion, pine nuts, ground allspice and salt.
Stir the ingredients together and cook the mixture another 8-10 minutes. Set the mixture aside to cool.
Putting together the Syrian Baked Kibbeh
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Retrieve the Kibbeh Nayeh from the refrigerator and divide it in half. Wet your hands and cover the bottom and sides of a 9" x 11" pan with one half of the raw lamb mixture. Pat it down gently so that it becomes a thin layer that entirely covers the pan.
Once the entire pan is covered with the raw lamb mixture, add the cooked lamb mixture on top. Then pan the remaining half of the raw lamb mixture into thin patties and place them on top of the cooked lamb, encasing it between the raw lamb layers. The photo shows the process mid-way through covering the cooked lamb with the top layer of raw meat.
When the cooked lamb is completely covered, wash your hands well and smooth out the top gently. Then cut diamond shapes all the way through the Kibbeh by making diagonal cuts with a large knife, then cutting diagonals in the other direction to make diamonds. (The pieces at the edge are not exactly diamonds.) Dot each diamond with a bit or two of butter.
Baking and Serving the Kibbeh
Bake for 35-40 minutes, until the top and sides are well browned. Check periodically during baking and pour off any fat that comes to the surface and dispose of it. (I poured the fat into the discarded tomato sauce can refrigerated it until it solidified and then threw it away.) At the end of baking, in order to make the top crispier, broil for 1-2 minutes. If using a glass pan, be especially careful not to put the pan too close to the broiler and don't broil if you can't keep the glass pan a safe distance from the heat/flame.
Let the Kibbeh rest for 2-3 minutes before cutting it. Serve with Greek-style yogurt.
For an explanation of what bulgur is and the grades it comes in, from extra fine to coarse, see What is the Difference Between Bulgur and Couscous.
Do not be concerned if the Kibbeh shrinks away from one or more sides of the casserole as it bakes.
After we made the Syrian Baked Lamb Kibbeh, I grabbed a few plates and some Greek yogurt for our tasting. I invited my husband, who had made himself scarce during our cooking adventure. We cleaned our plates in no time flat, and my husband asked for seconds. Needless to say, I see Syrian Baked Lamb Kibbeh in our future next time we long for comfort food.